The Ineffable

One of the most important aspects of my life has been the immense honor of seeing some very special areas of southern Utah with Ward Roylance, who knew and appreciated the Red Rock Country of southern Utah better than any other person on Earth. Like many of Ward's friends, we were drawn together by his visionary book The Enchanted Wilderness. This book gives an inspiring and deeply philosophical view of the artistic aspects of Red Rock Country. Ward's lifelong love affair with this region resulted in a deep geological understanding of the landscape's physical qualities, and an acute awareness of its esthetic qualities. His knowledge and appreciation of Red Rock Country came from a life dedicated to a deep rooted passionate love for southern Utah's natural esthetics, which compelled him to explore as much of it as was humanly possible during the time he was here. In addition, Ward's world travels seemed to sharpen his esthetic focus and gave him an even more intense sensitivity to the natural beauty, the "Art in Stone" as he called it, of the land which was his home for most of his life.

The following is the opening chapter from The Enchanted Wilderness. This book documents Ward’s visual awakening to the natural esthetics of Red Rock Country. Through his eyes we are given a new perspective on, and appreciation of, the "Enchanted Wilderness".

For we, which now behold...
Have eyes to wonder, but lack tongues to praise. 
- Shakespeare

The Ineffable
by Ward J. Roylance

In Nature's infinite book of secrecy
A little I can read.
- Shakespeare

Indescribable or unspeakable: That is the ineffable. The ineffable, by definition, is beyond expression.

What Gloria and I see from the heights of Thousand Lake Mountain and the Aquarius Plateau is, to us, ineffable. It is beyond expression, even comprehension. We look out upon a convoluted jumble of practically every landscape form imaginable - a library of earth history, a museum of nature's surreal art.

There are cliffs and buttes, mountains and mesas, canyons and valleys, domes and pinnacles, rounded slopes and numberless smaller forms, all painted in a rainbow spectrum of glorious hues, sculptured into shapes-designs-patterns that astonish with strange and endless diversity.

We cannot possibly do justice to those vistas in written or spoken words. We cannot even verbalize them to ourselves while looking. Language was not designed for the articulation of mystic profundities, or the conveying of emotional nuances, except in the vaguest way.

How could I describe, for instance, the overwhelming impression of vastness and visual impact - the sensation of being suspended as in a motionless plane, 4,000 feet above the most sublime exhibit of rock esthetics either of us has ever set eyes upon?

Or how could I describe those powerful feelings of immemorial Time engendered by the ruins before us? The inexorable cycles of change and decay these ruins manifest - the inconceivable ages of creation and destruction they represent? The hopelessness we feel about ever possessing more than the merest fragment of knowledge about ancient landscapes that preceded the ones we see: their myriad life forms, the eons of their duration, the endless complexities of geological origins, causes and effects?

As we look out from Thousand Lake Mountain and the Aquarius, impressions so ethereal they cannot be captured in words glide fleetingly through our consciousness. (Can those impressions even be termed thoughts?) They do not require words, they defy words, and they could not be conveyed with words.

Those impressions - those emotions - those convictions of the soul - are ineffable.

". .. a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma," wrote Winston Churchill. He was speaking of the acts of Russia and not the messages of nature, but his words describe, as succinctly as a few words can, how Gloria and I regard the mysteries of the Enchanted Wilderness.

Do we differ from other people in this attitude of reverential awe at nature's works in this land? Surely we do in some respects if not in all. This is a hypnotic place that casts a spell on those who are susceptible. Responses are all a matter of personal, temperamental idiosyncrasy. My emotional reactions and Gloria's are amazingly alike, being flavored by mysticism, resulting from an intimate, long-time, broad-range relationship with the Enchanted Wilderness not common to most people's experience.

Familiarity has not brought contempt or satiation in our case. On the contrary, it has amplified our wonder and strengthened our conviction that what we perceive here in this magical land is only the slightest suggestion of what lies beneath the physical facade, indistinct but not quite hidden, waiting only for each individual to lift the veil according to personal inclination or capability.

I have seen the Enchanted Wilderness with multiple eyes:
I have seen it with the wondering eyes of youth, and with older eyes that marvel still.
I have beheld it as a writer struggling vainly after words;
I have probed it with the camera's eye, seeking essence that eludes.
I examine it as a student of earth and learn it has no counterpart.
I view its mysteries with impassioned love and discover sublimity.
I see it as a vision; it is before me as a dream. Here I touch the ineffable grail.

A mere listing of inspirational viewpoints in the Plateau region would fill pages. What is seen and felt from every one of them lies in the realm of the inexpressible. How do you verbalize Exaltation? Grandeur? The awesome? Eternity before your eyes? Adjectives fail. How do you even hint at the infinite nuances of inorganic art displayed here?

Man's words do not serve well as conveyors of his deepest moods, his sacred thoughts and most-felt inexpressibles. Words are pale verbalizations of emotions that swell when faced with concepts too boundless to understand. What can we do, for example, when confronted with Grand Canyon's cosmic truths? Stand mute, perhaps (that's best), and muse about its nuances of time and immensity.

And how do you articulate boundless Illusion wrought on forms of endless and exotic variety by shifting perspective, moving clouds, the amplifying or muting of light, shadings so mobile they change by the moment?

"Through forms we can explore a world closed to rational thought," said an ancient Egyptian.

What is Real in this bewitched landscape? Are there any natural Absolutes here that can be captured and solidified by the living eye? (By the camera, perhaps, which records a mere moment.) For the thinking person, illusion-reality-absolutes are of more than casual concern in this enchanted land.

We look, Gloria and I. We study and analyze. We photograph. We visit and revisit. No place is ever the same. We see a form or design; in a moment it has changed. As Gloria says:

The Enchanted Wilderness:
A mysterious, changing place;
Never the same,
Tricking our thoughts, touching our inner beings,
Probing our deeper minds;
Giving rise to philosophical whisperings,
Conveying elusive truths that point
To the Ineffable.

In Torrey our south windows look out over a sweeping expanse of fields, toward a horizon formed by the Aquarius Plateau. Great buttress slopes, dark and somber, flow down from precipices ringing the mountain's table crest.

Low mesas and Cockscomb ridge provide middleground accent and perspective. The Cockscomb is a jagged exposure of light-colored Navajo sandstone, upthrust and fractured in some remote age by the Teasdale fault. Though not too remarkable either structurally or esthetically in this region of surpassing earth forms, it is a prominent landmark. When we glimpse it from Fish Lake Pass, 25 miles away, we know we are nearly home.

The Cockscomb is meaningful to us as a symbol. It represents immutable reality and permanence on the one hand, unreality and illusion on the other. In miniature it typifies those qualities as they are found throughout the Plateau region.

Several years ago I began photographing the Cockscomb at different times of day and seasons of the year, under varied weather and lighting conditions. Eventually I compared 20 or 30 of those photos.
The results were fascinating. Every picture showed a radically different Cockscomb! Which was the "real" Cockscomb? All were real, of course; and all were illusions in the sense that they never appeared the same.

Viewing from any fixed point affords only a tantalizing intimation of all the mystical qualities of this strange land. Awesome and inspiring as they may be, landscapes seen in overview are only grand mosaics - or they might be likened to the collective exhibits of a great museum of art as seen from a distance. The encompassing whole is marvelous; separate elements of the grand display, however, are indistinct. In the Enchanted Wilderness, as in a museum or with a great mural, stand-back viewing should be accompanied by close inspection for ultimate appreciation.

Most first time visitors to this region are overwhelmed by the landscape as a whole and by its larger, more striking features. There is far too much to assimilate at one time. Repeat visits are required - sometimes many visits before one becomes gradually aware of myriad smaller, more intricate, less obtrusive details that tend to elude the unpracticed eye.

I speak from long years of experience. My argument is supported by thousands of scenic photos
which reveal definite change (I like to think of it as positive evolution) in my choice of subject matter. For 20 or 30 years I was so preoccupied with macrocosmic esthetics and marvels of earth structure that I hardly glanced at the smaller but more exquisite rock art that abounds throughout the red-rock country: marvelous reliefs, or free-standing, exotic mini-sculptures, or rock textures so beautiful they bring tears to the eyes.

These small-scale works of natural art have not replaced the landscape in our affections. Rather, they expand our world of appreciation enormously.

Near Torrey, for example, is an expanse of chocolate-colored, multi-layered sedimentary rock known as the Moenkopi formation. The area is extremely rugged, a fact not too apparent from a distance. It is, in truth, a labyrinth of steep-walled canyons, shallow in their upper ends, dropping off rapidly in sharp ledges to gorges that are hundreds of feet deep. Here is the epitome of ruin. Broken sandstone is everywhere, but those rocks create a fairyland of erosional artistry beyond description.

Gloria and I have spent hundreds of hours in that weird land, hiking along the shattered rims and ledges, marveling at the wonderful designs that never exhaust the possibilities of surface and profile sculpturing. Worlds of art are here, worlds never dreamed by human mind, fantasies created from molecules by water and wind.

Some of those designs - many of them - make us cringe with delight. They are so beautiful! Seemingly so purposeful! They defy description. Or, more accurately, what defies description - what is inexpressible - is the idea of esthetic perfection behind the visible symbols cut into the rock. For many of these designs are esthetically perfect, insofar as we are qualified to judge: perfect in form, balance, and harmonious relationship between individual elements. Their spontaneous originality is breathtaking.

Whereas organic designs, and those created by people, tend to be stereotyped in cases, or formally geometric, or repetitious and stylized, every design carved in rock is an original. In inorganic art there seems to be no duplication or repetition. Line flow and form, in rock, have limitless variations in three dimensions.

Esthetic perfection in nature, as a concept, is hardly novel. Most people recognize it in flowers, sunsets, mountains, the forms of animal life, etc. So it is not surprising that rock forms also can provide the inspiration of "felt" perfection: for example, the gigantic "temples" of Zion and Capitol Reef...the rock forests of Bryce Canyon...the natural arches of Arches National Park and the Escalante...the spires and flowing rock of The Needles-Salt Creek country.

I have always found esthetic pleasure in rock art of that type, and not only in form and texture. Colors of the rocks in the Enchanted Wilderness are so marvelous, as at Bryce, or Cedar Breaks, or Capitol Reef, or in The Needles-Salt Creek country, or myriad other places.

Trying to describe erosional forms is very difficult for me. Particularly difficult to describe are intricately detailed sculptures, such as those at Bryce and Cathedral Valley, which are carved from layered rocks of varying thickness and differing resistance to erosion. In my personal lexicon, such forms represent the ineffable.

So, too, do some of the great dome-buttes of Zion and Capitol Reef and the San Rafael Swell. I am not capable of imagining designs more emotionally satisfying than those which nature has provided in the red-rock country (speaking here of inorganic designs), Oh, some purposeful touching-up and rounding-off of rough edges might be beneficial, but no major restructuring would be required to satisfy my esthetic standards.
On the subject of arches: Since we have begun focusing from the large to the small, Gloria and I have discovered a fantastic microcosmic world of "openings" that surpass in complexity of design their larger counterparts.

Even Delicate and Grosvenor arches - artistic masterpieces as they are - cannot compare in this way with literally countless small carvings on rock faces of the Enchanted Wilderness. These miniature creations display every conceivable variation of arch and window forms, combined with exquisite pillars, domes, alcoves, grottoes, pilasters and other architectural elements.

This type of mini-sculpturing occurs in many of the Plateau's rock layers, particularly on canyon walls where water has flowed at one time or another. Rock surfaces of the Capitol Reef area, for example, display countless exhibits of that nature; also North Wash between Hanksville and Lake Powell ...the Circle Cliffs...Factory Bench. The list of sites could be lengthened indefinitely. We have personal knowledge of only a few.

Gloria and I are intrigued at the moment by rock-surface designs of the San Rafael and Morrison rock groups, which include the Carmel, Entrada, Curtis, Summerville, Salt Wash and Brushy Basin sandstones, mudstones and shales.

Being relatively youthful, these rocks are fairly soft. They erode easily, and they have been carved into an astonishing variety of shapes and textures ranging from very small to very large.
For example, the giant temple-buttes of Cathedral Valley and South Desert are products of those rocks, or several of them in combination. So are the many miles of sculptured cliff faces in that region. Those cliff faces, and the buttes themselves, flaunt an endlessly variegated display of relief and freestanding carvings that leave one speechless with admiration. If any exhibit of rock esthetics can be termed "ineffable", this region's can.

I could go on, listing and describing points and places in the Enchanted Wilderness that display natural artistry approaching what Gloria and I consider the esthetic ideal.
An important point I have tried to make here is that there is artistry in the Plateau region sufficient to satisfy anybody with artistic sensitivity - if not of this generation, then surely in future years.

The more one looks, the more (magically) there is to see. There can be no end to esthetic discovery in this land, because artistic stimuli are as omnipresent here as they are likely to be anywhere, with respect at least to inorganic art. The landscape here is one of idealized, archetypal forms: an intricate natural mosaic of surprise, expectation, anticipation, and excitement.

In sum: Unbelievably rich, inexhaustible diversity of form and design is one of the wonders of the Enchanted Wilderness. So, too, is the uniqueness or uncommonness of so many of these forms and designs. And the miracle of how they are perceived in forever-changing, never-the-same aspects, which vary according to time of day, conditions of the sky, seasons and weather. Not least, how marvelous is the dimensional range of natural phenomena from panoramic landscapes to exquisite rock designs of microcosmic size.

Emotions overflow when I attempt, so feebly, to describe the Plateau as I know and feel it. After 40-odd years it is more wonderful to me than ever. Gloria and I cannot comprehend it, and know we never will. It conveys its multiple messages in complex cryptography, decipherable only by those who know the codes. Some of those codes we have mastered. Other people have succeeded where we have failed. But there are inexpressible messages yet waiting to be read. Of that we are convinced.

All text taken from The Enchanted Wilderness - (c) 1986 Ward J. Roylance


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